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Saturday, March 7, 2009

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN -- DVD review by porfle

One of the topic titles on the IMDb forum for this movie dismisses it as "FRIGHT NIGHT + MY GIRL." Which, superficially, is a fairly accurate way to describe the Swedish film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, aka Låt den rätte komma in (2008). It isn't strictly a horror film, although it's filled with horrific elements, nor does it try to be particularly scary even though certain moments are rather chilling. What makes it so affecting is the way it explores a visual and emotional territory that your typical horror flick rarely bothers with.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a troubled 12-year-old boy who is terrorized daily by bullies at school and spends most nights in an empty apartment while his mother works. Preoccupied with sensational newspaper stories of murder and mayhem, he fantasizes about slashing his schoolyard tormentors with the knife he carries about. One night, an older man and a little girl move into the apartment next door. As Oskar and Eli (Lina Leandersson) gradually get to know each other during their nightly encounters in the snow-covered courtyard of the building, he's glad to find that she is also lonely and troubled, and their friendship grows. But there's something very mysterious and strange about her.

People in the area start to turn up violently murdered, and we find that Eli's guardian, Håkan (Per Ragnar), is killing them and collecting their blood in large containers. When he's captured by the police, Eli is forced to go on the prowl herself, and as we see her attacking and killing people with little effort, it becomes clear that she is, in fact, a vampire. As Oskar realizes this, his initial reticence is overcome by his feelings for her, and in turn she begins to help him gain the confidence he needs to fight back against his cruel schoolmates. But as their hostility toward him reaches lethal proportions, Eli's secret is discovered and she must flee just when Oskar needs her help the most.

When I started watching what the Washington Examiner calls the "Best. Vampire Movie. Ever" (I wouldn't go quite that far), I had no idea that it was going to be a sensitive, contemplative love story filled with moments of haunting beauty. Oskar is so alone--his parents are divorced so he rarely sees his father, and none of the adults in his life can help him anyway--that we can feel the enormously uplifting effect Eli has on him. And being that Eli is even more alone in the world, the fact that she has a friend her own physical age (we never know how old she really is), who comes to accept her for what she is, gives some meaning to her useless life.

At times we see them merely lying together, holding hands--this simple contact makes each feel more substantial and alive. In a deleted scene, Oskar playfully hisses at her and she hisses back at him, gently mocking the image of the traditional screen vampire. Even the fact that Eli isn't quite what she appears to be ("I'm not a girl," she cryptically tells him at one point) ultimately doesn't matter to Oskar.

In a way, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is almost like a blood-drenched version of those somber made-for-TV children's films I used to watch when I was growing up, about two lonely misfits who find each other. In those films, the story was about two kids, or a kid and a dog, or a kid and a cat, or a kid and an understanding old person. Here, it's about a human kid and a vampire, but the slow, thoughtful story development and heartfelt empathy for the lead characters are the same. And within this framework, the matter-of-fact way that the shocking horrors are presented makes them all the more unsettling.

Eli's guardian, Håkan (is he her father, or an older version of Oskar?), prepares for his night's work as though he's going to any other routine job, calmly abducting people off the street and hanging them upside-down to drain their blood. His eventual fate is suitably grim, leaving Eli to fend for herself in a series of violent nocturnal attacks. Virginia (Ika Nord), a woman in Oskar's building who survives an encounter with Eli, enters the apartment of a cat-loving friend and is viciously mauled by his enraged felines, then later deals with the problem of her impending vampirism in a spectacular manner.

Tomas Alfredson, who has directed this film with impressive skill and restraint, saves the best for last in the climactic sequence. In a placid and almost silent underwater environment, we suddenly witness several violent killings without actually seeing them, in a shot that's so cleverly conceived that it comes as a delightful surprise. I had to watch it two or three times before I could get over what a visually imaginative piece of storytelling it is. (The behind-the-scenes featurette shows the filming of this shot in detail.) There are other interesting touches throughout the film, such as a glimpse of Eli climbing up the side of a building in the far background, or the pivotal scene in which Oskar, torn between feelings of love and loathing, demands to know what will happen to Eli if she enters his apartment without being invited. I also like the way Alfredson often slowly moves his camera around until something unexpected enters the frame.

The adult actors are all good but it's the juvenile leads who carry the film. As Oskar and Eli, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson couldn't be better as each gives a performance that is complex and moving. The film itself has the cold, icy look of a Swedish winter but is warmed by their affection and concern for one another. Every aspect of the production is similarly well-done. I've never read John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel, but his screenplay adaptation is fine. As for the ending, I'm still wondering whether or not it's a happy one (Alfredson contends that it is). It's definitely thought-provoking.

The DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment is 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound, both of which are good, and the soundtrack comes in the original Swedish or an English dub with subtitles. Bonus features include four deleted scenes, a "making of" featurette, a photo gallery, and a theatrical poster gallery. There are also trailers for this and other features in the Six Shooter Film Series.

Viewers looking for a fast-moving succession of shocks and visceral thrills will likely be disappointed in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. But most people who can appreciate extremely compelling filmmaking--even those who may have trouble getting past the fact that it's a "vampire" movie--will be glad that they let this one in. The most famous screen vampire, Bela Lugosi's DRACULA, unknowingly gave this worthy successor a fitting recommendation way back in 1931: "Listen to them...children of the night. What music they make."

Read our review of the remake LET ME IN


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